AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The literary legacy of Miguel de Cervantes has survived for 400 years. His novel "Don Quixote" is considered the greatest novel in the Spanish language, and millions who have not read the book know it through the musical "Man of La Mancha." But Cervantes himself, his physical remains, were lost until now. Legend had it he was buried under a Madrid convent, but he never got a gravestone. Lauren Frayer picks up the story from there.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: It was Miguel de Cervantes dying wish to be buried here inside the walls of the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, where a dozen cloistered nuns still live nearly 400 years later. Cervantes owed his life to these nuns. You see, before Cervantes wrote "Don Quixote," he had some chivalrous adventures of his own. He fled Spain after a dual. He came back and enlisted in the Spanish navy. He went to war to defend the pope. He got shot in the ribs and arm, and then he got kidnapped by Algerian pirates.
FERNANDO DEL PRADO: He was taken prisoner. He spent five years - five terrible years - as a slave, as a captive.
FRAYER: Historian Fernando Del Prado says the Trinitarian nuns delivered a ransom to the pirates and got Cervantes freed. It's like something straight out of "Don Quixote." And now for the past year and a half, Madrid has been on a quixotic mission of its own to find Cervantes' bones under this convent and finally mark the burial site. In an underground crypt, geophysicist Luis Avial used geo-radar to X-ray long-forgotten burial chambers.
LUIS AVIAL: It's magnetic impulse. It's like X-ray. We put this strong signal in the ground, and the important information of the cavities, structures, graves...
FRAYER: All the contours of centuries-old graves became clear. Next, they began digging and found 15 sets of human remains, one of them in a wooden coffin marked with the initials M.C. The skeleton's ribs were flayed, its left arm crippled. Good enough proof, says forensic anthropologist Francisco Etxeberria, that they'd found their man.
FRANCISCO ETXEBERRIA: (Speaking Spanish).
FRAYER: "When I saw that rib, I thought we found Cervantes at last," he said. It was a special moment. The whole team was there. This month, Exteberria's team reburied Cervantes' bones near where they found them, adhering to his dying wish, and dedicated a monument to him upstairs in the convent. The Honor guard was from the same Spanish military unit Cervantes himself once served in.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ANA BOTELLA: (Speaking Spanish).
FRAYER: It's finally time to say Don Miguel, mission accomplished," outgoing Mayor Ana Botella said four centuries late. Madrid is negotiating with the Trinitarian nuns over new visiting hours. For now, tourists can pay homage to Cervantes only during mass times. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "MAN OF LA MANCHA")
BRIAN STOKES MITCHELL: (As Don Quixote) (Singing) I am I, Don Quixote, the Lord of La Mancha. My destiny calls, and I go. And the wild winds of fortune will carry me onward, oh whithersoever they blow. Whithersoever they blow, onward to glory I go.
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